Britain’s suburbs seem to be in the doldrums, and in the grip of a polarisation of attitudes. The 2016 EU referendum shows a distinct pattern of metropolitan remainers and suburban leavers. Although city centre residents were typically in favour of remaining in the EU, suburban residents were much less convinced. In Manchester (city), for example, 60% of voters wanted to remain whereas in Bolton only 42% did; In the city of Liverpool, 58% of voters wanted to remain but in Knowsley it was 48%. Similar patterns can be seen in much of London.
It could be argued that this pattern tells us something about a wider economic polarisation between the city suburb and its core. The Smith Institute have argued that the suburbs are lagging behind in measures of job creation, and are experiencing deprivation, poverty, and lower house price growth. For example, in the West Midlands in 1995, 70% of the cheapest 10% of areas in the West Midlands were suburban; by 2014 that figure had risen to almost 90%.
It is perhaps not terribly surprising to learn that suburban housing is now cheaper than city centre housing – after all, there is a premium on being close to the action. But that has not necessarily always been the case – there was a time when the ‘inner city’ was seen as a dirty, crowded place, and contrasted unfavourably with the peaceful, leafy, spacious suburbs. Urban depopulation was seen as a good thing, especially among adherents of the garden city movement. But perhaps we are experiencing a re-energising of city centres at the expense of the suburbs. ‘City centre living’ is all the rage, partly driven by the expansion of city universities, and partly by strenuous efforts at city centre regeneration as many post-war projects reach their sell-by dates.
Can we expect this trend to be thrown into reverse, and for the suburb to triumph once more? Certainly the Smith Institute argue that the suburbs of our cities need more attention. And, although the trends that prefer the city centre have now been running for around two decades, we suspect that by 2040 the spotlight may have turned back to the suburbs once more. There are four reasons for this.
- The suburbs of larger cities will start to acquire more shape and structure through higher density growth at public transport nodes, leading to a re-energising of their areas
- The enormous amount of property investment cash flooding into the UK might perceive that city centre real estate is overpriced, and look for alternative investment opportunities in more suburban and fringe areas. Not all such areas want private investment, as the experience of private developers in Haringey perhaps shows. But for those that do, this money represents a good opportunity to revive tired districts that may not have had much attention since they were first built a century ago
- Some of the institutions which have attracted the vibrant young city centre population are themselves finding city centre life too difficult to handle – perhaps because their premises are becoming obsolete, or because they’ve simply run out of space. In London alone, Imperial College, for example, has moved some of its operations to White City while Birkbeck College offers courses from its Stratford campus
- Cheaper housing than the urban core.
This trend has got a long way to go. By 2040, it might be the case that the trendiest places to be are the buzzy suburban district centres of our cities. However, as we write elsewhere, these district centres might do rather better than their leafy residential surroundings. Either way, suburbs will need to adapt and evolve just as much as any other part of the city if they are to maintain their value.